The Agile Museum

After her recent trip to ‘Museum 2015’ in Tokyo, FCBStudios Partner Clare Hughes explores the notion of the Agile Museum

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

For four days I talked with museum directors, curators and designers from across the globe about designing for change.[1] We explored how museums can become more responsive animals in this Brave New World of diminishing subsidy, rising visitor numbers and technology that becomes obsolete within months of being installed.

Museum 2015 was a creative collaboration between Leicester University’s School of Museum Studies (LUSMS) and Tokyo’s National Museum. I was invited to run a workshop with Museum Studies Director of School Dr. Suzanne MacLeod where we explored what to consider when adapting an existing museum: what to keep, what to remove, how to balance the architectural vision with curatorial, organisational and visitor needs. The external envelope is particularly contentious for museums as this is usually the means by which they communicate to their public: the image of the exterior serves as icon of the whole organization which now has to compete in a global cultural marketplace. 

Many column inches have been written and academic papers presented which argue that our preoccupation with the external semiotics of cultural buildings gets in the way of the true mission of most museums today. Gehry and Libeskind have come in for particularly swingeing criticism but the dissonance of form and function is something museum directors say they come up against time and again.

This is in part because many of our existing cultural buildings were designed for a different era when the story of “art” and “objects” was laid out by an omniscient but unnamed narrator. Visitors followed the spatial narrative, arranged in linear or labyrinthine plan form – once inside you had to keep going.

Today, the Audience is the new lifeblood of museums and they require much more fluid and open spaces, an invitation to get involved but a multiplicity of choices as to what that involvement might be. So, as museums try to become responsive, creative platforms for creativity and connection those 19th century hulks that the Victorians did so well are struggling to keep up with the programme.

The wonderful Whitworth Gallery [2] an old student haunt of mine in Manchester, has just resurfaced from a deep dive into these challenges and its director Maria Balshaw is clear that the £15m budget has been focused on opening the building and the collections to the people to whom they belong. She describes MUMA’s new glass and brick volumes, projecting from the rear of the 19th century building into the park, as a pair of open arms which say: “This place belongs to you”. [3] The choice of glass “arms” is no accident: “Visibilité, Perméabilité, Agilité” could be the rallying cry of most self-respecting museum directors today.

As if this growing need for agility weren’t enough of a design challenge, the Agile Museum needs more than anything to “tool up” for the rise and rise of digital living. Ross Parry, Senior Lecturer at the School of Museum Studies, demonstrated that digital is no longer an optional extra to be left to the geeks to work out. Digital will be embedded within the fabric of the building and the heart of the visitor experience.

Going further, he and James Davis of the Google Cultural Institute, raised the provocative idea that the museum should perhaps no longer be considered “a building” but rather a “network of ideas”. An interesting metaphor but, having spent the last two weekends in Manchester and Liverpool enjoying tremendous physical spaces for art, I’m going to vote it stays as metaphor. The real physical spaces where we enjoy art and culture are not simply containers for content. Spatial design, the narrative journey, the use of light, the weaving of technology in space: all these architectural gestures create the experience, they are part of the ideas on display. [4]

 And this brings us to perhaps the most interesting feat of agility required of museums in the 21st century: turning inside out. Museums are part of the public realm and, as such they provide important social spaces where we may encounter “the other” (and ourselves) within a safe and encouraging environment. [5]  Museums enhance the quality of our civic lives as well as our individual ones and as public space is contested and diminished, the agility of Museums to provide external and internal civic spaces must increase. [6]

So how can architects help facilitate this important move from the scholarly certainties of the curator to the open-ended engagement of the audience? New paradigms are necessary for thinking about how the relationship between people, object and space might be expressed. [7]  

As a film-maker and creative director working in architecture I’m deeply convinced that human beings are hard-wired to respond to narrative structures and the really exciting challenges ahead are how museums as narrative spaces can create new and life-enhancing buildings for exploration, community and transformation.  The arguments cease to be around the old chestnut of form and content because in narrative space they are fused as one. So stop reading the labels and watch this space….

Clare Hughes



1. The National Art Center Tokyo  by Kisho Kurokawa

2.  Whitworth Gallery J.W.Beaumont/MUMA

3. Image credit: Hayes Davidson

4. Nezu Museum by Kengo Kuma

5. Museum of Liverpool by 3XN

6. Pierhead, Liverpool Docks

7. The Nightwatch, Rijksmuseum. Image John Dawson